Their Modernization and Ours

As many know, talk of modernization is once again all the rage in Russia.  But what is it and to what end?  Is it merely another example of “eternal Russian question” of historical backwardness?  Is Medvedev’s overtures merely a replay of every Tsar and Commissar before him?  Or does Russia’s current backwardness have more immediate roots in the liberal capitalism of the post-Soviet era?  Can “modernization” really be achieved with a Russian Silicon Valley, fiber optic lines, nanotechnology, the political decentralization of the political system, and the increased privatization of its economy as many partisans across Russia’s liberal political spectrum advocate?  Is innovation enough, especially in a globalized economy that is predicated on increasing redundancy of labor, de-industrialization, and financial casino capitalism?

Some of these questions are posed in “ Their Modernization and Ours” by the editors of Rabkor.ru.  Rabkor.ru is part of the small but emerging Russian New Left which uncompromisingly seeks to restructure Marxian theory and praxis for a new century.  In a Russia where Marx has fallen and utopian visions have shattered, those at Rabkor keep the Gramscian dictum of “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” alive.

I don’t agree with all their statements and formulations, but I sympathize with the general trust of their comment.  I also felt that non-Russian readers might find the questions and solutions they pose interesting.  Especially since the debate on Russian modernization is totally dominated by liberals who see the modernization problem as one of the content, not the form of the system.  Because of this, a taste of what the Russian New Left has to say is in order. — Sean


In Russia, the time of great campaigns has returned. In Soviet times, we broke new ground and planted corn. Then we fought against drunkenness and concerned ourselves with economic acceleration. We were not always successful, but certainly in the real world. Today’s Russia proclaims the slogan of modernization. But so far this modernization is only in cyberspace.

There is no doubt that President Medvedev isn’t serious to his declared aim to sincerely turn propaganda into social practice. Will it work?  And if it does, then what?

The President declares: Russia is a backward country. Sounds like a poignant diagnosis. Now let’s ask: since when has Russia been “a backward country”? References to age-old problems and a difficult past don’t fly. For the most part, the Soviet Union lagged behind the West, and this backwardness increased during the 70’s and 80’s and led to a systemic crisis. But it was not “a backward country.”

When some French journalist came up with a sardonic joke that Russia is “Burkina Faso with missiles”, similar words in reference to the Soviet Union were seen as no more than an expression of spite and the speaker’s incompetence. Today, after nearly two decades of liberal reforms and the successful restoration of capitalism, this formula seems much closer to the truth.

How often we laugh at the “eternal Russian question” formulated by the progressive publicists of the nineteenth century.  Now we have to return to them. But in order to understand “what is to be done,” first we must make clear “who is to blame.”

Yes, the Soviet Union was in crisis. Yes, it has historically exhausted itself as a model for development. Yes, it lacked freedom and democracy and for a period of time paralyzed and hindered intellectual and scientific development, reduced the motivation for work, and the ability to innovate was perceived as a threat to the system. Yes, we had a bureaucratic state, slow and stagnant, which sought to justify its existence with references to history and slogans no one believed in.

Well, are things any different now?

What was the Soviet Union criticized for in the late 1980’s? The fact that we lagged behind the West in terms of technological development. And has the gap decreased over the last 20 years of liberal reforms? Critics of the Soviet Union talked about debt and the growing economic dependence on exports. Have we managed to solve these problems with liberalism and capitalism? Everyone knew that the living standards of the majority of the Soviet population were far below the level of the Western European “middle class”. Since then, Russia’s “middle class” has been created by filling store shelves with imported goods. But the majority of people have nothing whatsoever to do with this “middle class”. The gap between the average incomes of our workers and those in the West has grown substantially.  And, of course, not in our favor.

In Soviet times, there were complaints about the militarization of the economy and society and in the fact that our claim to superpower status was solely justified by our military power. Since then we have stopped claiming the status of a world power, but we try to pretend we are a regional power with exactly the same methods.

Participants in the mass protests late 80s dreamed of freedom and democracy. Can anyone today seriously argue that we have made significant headway in this area? Even the President of Russia tactfully speaks about “the modernization of political system”, implying that it is somehow far from a democracy.

Whatever the grand problem of the Soviet era, we have not reckoned with the fact that the attempts to solve it with liberal capitalism have made the situation worse, not better. De-industrialization, which has occurred in the West under the slogan of the transition to an information society, has also turned into a serious socio-economic crisis that has undermined the foundations of their traditional way of life and the purchasing power of their population.  Almost all of the innovative potential of society has been given to the invention of various high-tech toys, financial speculation and promotion of self-destructive parasitic consumption. But whatever the costs of this process, it was accompanied by the undeniable progress in many areas of life.

In contrast, in Russia de-industrialization was not the negative side effect of a technological revolution, but the primary essence of what has occurred. It has been accompanied by a decay in science, the contraction of applied and fundamental research, the degradation of the education system, the work of which has continued by inertia, the loss of socio-economic purpose and meaning, primitivization of the economy as a whole, and the loss of millions of skilled people. In short, the current backwardness of Russia is a direct, natural, and logical result of liberal reforms in the past 20 years. And if we want to overcome this backwardness, we need to first of all overcome the conditions which reproduce it. Namely the social and economic system that we have built over the past two decades and consign its ideology and politics to the dustbin of history.

It is precisely our social and political system that produces and reproduces backwardness, blocks development and makes whatever novations that are really meaningful and useful to society unnecessary, dangerous and impossible. Attempts to substitute change with ridiculous “innovation” essentially boils down to the implementation high-cost projects based on the introduction of fashionable foreign technology, the viability and relevance of which is even more called into doubt in the West. Instead of a new society we are getting new toys.

We don’t need to swap computers, but the system. Support for science and education requires more than increasing the budgets of bureaucratic agencies, but a crackdown on these very agencies and the cessation of their guiding policies. Industrial development is possible, but not at the expense of state subsidies to oligarchs, but based on the expropriation of oligarchs’ capital and property.

Society can, and in historical perspective must, formulate its own project of modernization because the only alternative to change is the decline and the actual transformation of Russia into “Burkina Faso with missiles”. And then, really without missiles. But changes require a base – and it’s far from those who offer us chinovniki who distribute money to national projects. Before anything new is done, its necessary to get rid of the old people and organizations responsible for the current situation.

When the president talks about the modernization of Russia, there is no reason to doubt his sincerity. But can the leader of its political system implement the changes necessary for the country?

The answer is already known: if the latest attempt of modernization will be based on the existing social order, it will meet the same fate as many other campaigns.  At best, modernization will turn out to be the slogans and lexicon of the ruling circles.

And if modernization is taken as the serious transformation of society, then who will take up this matter, and if so can the system established over the last 20 years survive?

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